The city of Fife is paying its eight-year police chief a severance package well in excess of $100,000, according to a separation agreement The News Tribune obtained this week after the city announced the chief’s resignation.
The city’s separation deal with Chief Brad Blackburn outlines terms of his resignation that include six months of his annual salary of nearly $147,000, plus an amount equal to 300 hours of accrued vacation and 18 months of health benefit premiums. It also includes $25,000 for professional services Blackburn may provide to the city in the future and cash-out value for his sick leave benefits.
City officials said they couldn’t provide the total value of the payout Friday because the calculations hadn’t been finalized.
The city said Monday that the 53-year-old chief’s “long-planned departure” was voluntary. But those close to him believe there’s more to the story.
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Because of the agreement, Blackburn told The News Tribune that he couldn’t comment on whether his decision to resign was voluntary.
Some residents and business owners have suggested that his resignation may have been forced, and some parts of the separation agreement hint that the city isn’t sharing all information. Among the details were requirements that Blackburn stay off city grounds until his resignation was effective Wednesday and that he refrain from speaking about the circumstances surrounding his departure.
City Manager Dave Zabell disputed the claim that Blackburn wasn’t allowed on city property during the time that details of his departure were being finalized, despite language that said the former chief was “not to report to duty, conduct any Police Department business by computer, phone or otherwise, or enter city facilities ... unless directed to do so in writing by the city manager.”
Zabell added that other details in the agreement are standard language for such releases.
“He was not barred from city property,” Zabell said in an email Friday. “There were multiple verbal modifications that resulted in flexibility with respect to access and work on several issues that were job-related.”
A handful of business owners and residents are circulating a petition urging the City Council to “reinstate” the former chief.
Ken Luce — who formerly worked as Fife’s prosecutor and judge for a total of 20 years and currently has a private practice in the city — says the city isn’t being transparent about Blackburn’s departure.
Luce said Thursday that there shouldn’t be a need to silence Blackburn with a separation agreement if he left voluntarily.
The document, which The News Tribune obtained through a public records request, states that Blackburn can’t make “false, disparaging or derogatory statements to anyone regarding the city” or any of its staff. It directs city officials to exercise the same restraint.
It also states that, by signing the agreement, all involved parties acknowledge that the contract “constitutes a full and final settlement of any and all claims,” which keeps Blackburn and the city from filing lawsuits against each other.
At the regular Fife City Council meeting Tuesday, residents were puzzled why a voluntary resignation would require legal oversight. They urged council members to learn more about the situation from Blackburn directly.
“Have you had a personal conversation with Brad to determine whether or not he wants to resign from the city?” resident Jeff Jensen asked, stressing that he’s sure the former chief isn’t ready to leave the city.
Jensen noted that he’s worked in public safety for decades and knows Blackburn well. “Don’t accept his resignation. Call him up and have him come back to work tomorrow.”
Resident Kory Edwards expressed disappointment in the council’s apparent lack of involvement in the chief’s departure. He urged them to be more vocal in an issue that “will impact us for many many years.”
“We had a 26-year veteran of this city that miraculously chose to resign in a matter of days,” Edwards said. “Your silence on this was deafening.”
Mayor Tim Curtis responded that he doesn’t want the “rumor mill” dampening Blackburn’s departure.
“People are reading more into this than there is,” Curtis said. “This is a decision that he made. We as a council were not involved in this decision because he does not work for us.”
The separation agreement was signed by Blackburn and Zabell. It was not subject to a vote of the council.
City Attorney Loren Combs also responded to residents’ concerns, saying that it’s normal for attorneys to be involved in separation agreements.
He reiterated that Blackburn’s resignation was voluntary.
“Brad’s going to explore other opportunities,” Combs said Tuesday. “But there’s things about personnel issues that are personnel issues.”
Zabell, who’s leaving Fife next month to become Pasco city manager, said any rumors suggesting Blackburn was forced out are false.
“No question that Brad had many friends in the community, and deservedly so as community outreach is an area where he excelled,” Zabell said in his email Friday. “So it is not surprising that his resignation elicited emotion in some.”